ComSciCon in review

By Emily Bentley

I sat down the day after ComSciCon-San Diego with ten pages of notes and my head buzzing with possibilities. There are so many directions to take a science communication career, and I just got a head start on whatever path I choose.

ComSciCon is a free science communication conference for graduate students. Since its inception in Boston five years ago, the event has expanded to include satellite conferences like last weekend’s San Diego meeting. Attendees from as far as Northern California and Arizona drove in to join some familiar faces. Shout out to the SANDSWA members among the organizers, attendees and panelists.

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ComSciCon-San Diego attendees and organizers. Photo by Johnny Nguyen.

The weekend was a chance for me to sharpen my skills and pick up some new tips. But perhaps most valuable were the discussions the conference helped start. Here’s how some of those conversations went.

Workshop Activities

How catchy is your elevator pitch?

To grab a stranger’s attention, you need to cut to the heart of your scientific subject in only a minute or two. Need practice? Have a partner outside the field listen to your pitch. Then – surprise – listen to them give the pitch to someone else. If they can’t explain your subject, the communication failure is yours.

For instance, I forgot to explain what a protein is. Make sure to start at the beginning.

As for written communication, the best advice I heard was this gem from Elena Blanco-Suàrez: Your lede should also work as a tweet. 

Panel 1 – Connecting Science and Policy

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Left to right: Panelists Andrea Chiba, Adriana Bankston, and Brynna Jacobson.                         Photo by Jiwan Kohli.

Scientific knowledge doesn’t mean much if it isn’t shared – especially with the most powerful decision makers in government. So how do we get data into the right hands?

First, it’s important to have the ear of a policymaker interested in listening. Find the science policy staffer, even in departments with unsympathetic leaders. Remember that the political cycle is short and demanding. To implement big changes, look around and ask yourself where no policy exists yet.

Of course, an enthusiastic public lends momentum to the best political intentions. Reach out as an equal, not an authority, the panel advised. Rather than asking people to trust a monolithic idea of science, bring the public into the scientific process.

After all, the world isn’t divided into scientists and laypeople. But scientists ought to embrace their expertise and be honest about what we know so far. With transparency, policy can evolve with scientific understanding.

Resources mentioned:

  • The Art of Science Communication – an online course for scientists from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
  • Government institutes like the NIH post their meeting minutes online. (For example) Use this to get to know your audience and their priorities.

 Panel 2 – More Than Just Diversity: Why Science Needs Inclusivity

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Left to right: Moderator Jiwan Kohli with panelists Andrea Letamendi, Gentry Patrick and  Daniel Aguirre. Photo by Caroline Sferazza.

Diversity or inclusivity – what’s the difference? Meeting a diversity quota isn’t enough if minority community members feel unwelcome. Adding a token minority to your organization doesn’t mean you can check diversity off your to-do list.

Inclusivity requires an entire community to take responsibility. Though those thirstiest for improvement may feel the most pressure to push for change, the panel urged underrepresented people not to neglect their own careers. Simple visibility as a minority scientist makes a difference.

If the environment isn’t right, try to shrug off the burden of representing an entire community. All three panelists agreed that working with passion has a bigger impact than working with resentment. “When we have more of us in the room, that guilt will dissipate,” Andrea said.

So what steps can you take now? Confront your own biases. Start by admitting that you have them. After all, if we all have the same perspective, then we all have the same blind spots. We need diversity to gain a more complete picture.

Resources mentioned:

  • 52 Weeks of Science, a Fleet Science Center outreach program run by Daniel Aguirre
  • PATHS Program, a UCSD scholarship program started by Gentry Patrick
  • The Arkham Sessions, Andrea Letamendi’s podcast combining science and pop culture to discuss Batman: The Animated Series

Panel 3 – Science Communication and Your Career

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Left to right: Panelists Heather Buschman, Ramin Skibba, Ashley Juavinett, Jennifer MacArthur, and moderator James R. Howe VI. Photo by Jiwan Kohli.

Launching a career in science communication might be as simple as calling yourself a freelance writer. There are no necessary credentials – you’re already qualified to list your services on LinkedIn.

If freelancing isn’t your style, be aware that not all science writing jobs say so in the title. You may want to look for keywords like “content marketing,” or take a position in a related field like medical writing while you search. It’s okay if you don’t land your dream job immediately. That intermediate experience will prepare you for the next opportunity.

The hottest tip came from SANDSWA President Ramin Skibba. Whether you’re networking or interviewing, always ask: “Who else should I talk to?”

Resources mentioned:

What next?

If this summary wasn’t enough ComSciCon for you, check out their Twitter coverage and keep an eye out next spring for 2019 applications.

I learned more than I could possibly include in a blog post. This conference is run with great enthusiasm, and it shows.

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